Thursday, July 5, 2007

Mindfulness and Merton

"Life is not a set of boundaries but a set of possibilities."

This statement by Thomas Merton should be the official epigraph of this blog. Merton,the American Catholic monk and author, and Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, have been the major influences on my spiritual journey.

Nhat Hanh has reminded all who read his work of the power of being in the present. It's so easy for people like me to worry, be anxious, anticipate the future or return to old issues and relive them in my mind. As soon as I realize that the past is as unreal as the future, that only the present is real, I know I am on the way to some inner peace.

I have learned that meditation means stopping the fast-forward mode in which we all live and calming down, looking deeply at the ordinary things I do (eating, cleaning) and being present to them and to myself: being totally aware of immediate reality.

"Peace of mind" may be a contradiction in terms since if we live in our minds, we are constantly analyzing, thinking, reviewing, etc. We are not centered on the present. And only the present is real. If we are to find God, to feel the presence of God, we must, I think, focus on living consciously in present reality.

Merton, in his extensive writing on contemplation, develops this in terms closer to my own tradition. I have relied on Merton as I have been completing the draft of a book on silence and contemplative prayer.

Merton, writing with the ancient desert fathers in mind, talks eloquently about the importance of letting go of the self--so hard to do--and just being. Letting go of words, living part of each day in solitude and silence, is a challenge for us in this postmodern world, yet how else do we achieve inner peace?

And yet, as a writer, I need words, and so I am not really inwardly silent.

Merton's comment on writing has been of enormous value to me: "Writing is one thing that gives me access to some real silence and solitude. Also I find that it helps me to pray because when I pause at my work I find that the mirror inside me is surprisingly clean and deep and serene and God shines there and is immediately found, without hunting, as if He had come close to me while I was writing."

This statement, too, is likely to be a recurring theme in this blog. Writing, along with reading, we can give me access to my inner being and to the presence of God within me. Merton was both monk and writer, a man who lived with the tension that exists between merely being in the presence of God and writing works that others will read.

Writing can be a form of meditation if I keep my focus on my work and nothing else, if I realize that my goal is not just inner peace but a connection with the divine--mysterious though that sounds.

I am fascinated by the mystery of silence and will have more to say about its power. If religion can be restricting, spirituality is limitless in its possibilities.

There is in our culture a vast hunger for meaning, a healthy longing to encounter the ultimate mystery, whether you call this God or not. I find that silence is a way in to this mystery.

1 comment:

Elle said...

A man holding the hand of his young daughter walked into Whole Foods the other day. The back of his t-shirt read: "It may never happen," a real tribute to living in the now.

There is a theory floating about: that the past, future and present are all merely a hologram of true reality. If the past and future are unreal, then why isn't the present just as unreal?